Asian Pacific American Christianity in a Post-Ethnic Future (2002)

I had almost forgotten about this article I wrote fourteen years ago. It’s difficult to find this journal article, so here it is! I re-read it after a friend reminded me. Though much of the language and research is outdated, I’m surprised by how much I still agree with its premise. I hope that this article can be helpful for thinking about race and Asian American Christian ministry!   — Tim

Full citation: Timothy Tseng, “Asian Pacific American Christianity in a Post-Ethnic Future,” American Baptist Quarterly 21, no. 3 (September 2002): 277-292 [Download PDF version here]


Once upon a time, it was obvious why Asian Pacific American congregations existed. Immigrants who could not speak English needed places where they could hear the gospel in their own languages. They needed places where they could hold on to their culture in a strange new world. They needed places of refuge from a society that clearly discriminated against foreigners and Asians. In a country that prided itself as Christian, Asian Pacific American churches before World War II were among the very few places where immigrants from Asia could find the practice of authentic Christianity. Thus, the celebration of Japanese Baptist Church’s one hundred years of ministry is an affirmation that Christ’s Gospel still has the power to stand against the corrosive forces that “water down” an American Christianity that is supposed to be both evangelistic and prophetic.

But today, it is not so easy to answer the question of whether Asian American congregations should continue to exist. Today, Asian Pacific Americans are changing so unpredictably that one commentator quipped that “the Asian American identity as we now know it may not last another generation.”[1] Nearly fifty percent of Asian Pacific Americans under age 35 are marrying non-Asians. How will the increasing numbers of interracial marriages impact Asian Pacific American congregations of the future? Will the next generation of bi-racial children identify themselves as Asian Pacific Americans or as something different? Where will they want to worship? Also, most Asian Pacific Americans are now being raised in the suburbs among Caucasians. While many may experience an awakening of Asian Pacific American consciousness in college where they encounter the Asian Pacific American label, most will probably remain ambivalent about their Asian Pacific American identities. Indeed, this may be one of the reasons why Asian Pacific American Christians are becoming the largest minority groups in evangelical campus ministries such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade. In most of these Christian fellowships, questions of racial identity are subordinated to religious identity (though InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Asian American Christian Fellowship have become more explicit about doing ministry with the Asian Pacific American context in mind). In these campus fellowships, an Asian Pacific American Christian can be surrounded by many other Asians without feeling compelled to engage the issue of their racial identity or participate in the Asian Pacific American consciousness movements on campus![2] Furthermore, with fewer American-born Asians entering and staying in the ministry, more and more Asian Pacific American congregations are calling Caucasian pastors to shepherd their English speaking youth ministries (n.b. it is possible that there are more Caucasian pastors of Asian Pacific American congregations than Asian Pacific American pastors of predominantly Caucasian congregations). What impact will this trend have on the next generation of Asian Pacific American Christians, especially if Caucasian pastors are insensitive to the cultural and social contexts which the young people in their congregation face daily? Asian Pacific American demographics today is becoming so diverse that one wonders whether it will be possible to unite every group under the umbrella Asian Pacific American.[3]

Another reason why the future of Asian Pacific American congregations is now open to question is related to the current political climate. The current neo-conservative ideological practice of bashing affirmative action policies in favor of so-called “color-blind” policies is slowly seeping into our Asian Pacific American congregations. There is now a political climate hostile to open conversations about racial differences. At first glance, this may seem strange because there is also so much conversation about multiculturalism and respecting diversity. But what has happened with much of the conversation about multiculturalism is the impression that diversity is respected so long as no one organizes politically along ethnic or racial lines. Solutions to racial discrimination have now shifted away from the political process towards individualistic racial reconciliation projects. Racism is now no longer viewed as structural and institutional, but personal and attitudinal. In any case, because Asian Pacific Americans do not appear to “fit” into the current Black/White conversation about race, we are tempted to think that racism (institutional or otherwise) does not affect us as much. Consequently, there is little motivation to organize ourselves along racial lines. This sensibility has influenced the way Asian Pacific Americans are choosing to engage politics. Jere Takahashi notes that the Japanese American community is in a period of transition “and no longer possess the same cultural affinities and economic interests, among others, that had previously helped sustain ethnic community ties.”[4] Eric Liu confirms this when he says “more than ever before, Asian Americans are only as isolated as they want to be. They – we – do not face the levels of discrimination and hatred that demand an enclave mentality, particularly among the second generation, which, after all, provides most of the leadership for the nation-race. The choice to invent and sustain a pan-Asian identity is just that: a choice, not an imperative.”[5] Ironically, when Asian Pacific American Christians begin to see their ethnicity as merely a personal preference (symbolic ethnicity), they will less likely join ethnic churches. And many second to fifth generation Asian Pacific American Christians—who associate Asian immigrant and pan-Asian congregations with clannish outlooks—are choosing to leave the Asian Pacific American church, though it doesn’t look like they are joining predominantly Caucasian or multi-racial congregations en masse either. (One exception may be Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, which is drawing many second generation Chinese Americans. Though lauded by many Christians as a model of multi-cultural ministry, this phenomenon may reveal more about the perceptions of the younger Chinese Americans than about Redeemer Presbyterian. Perhaps these younger, upwardly mobile, Chinese American Christians [YUMCHAs] view many of the Chinese churches in the New York Metropolitan as urban-immigrant ghettos.) It may sound like a stretch, but I believe that the current political climate of racial non-recognition contributes to the perception that Asian Pacific American ethnic-racial identities are optional.

A third reason why Asian Pacific American congregations may not survive in the future is due to the disconnect between an earlier generation of Asian Pacific American theologians and the emerging younger evangelical Asian Pacific American leadership. Earlier leaders, such as Paul Nagano, Jitsuo Morikawa, Roy Sano, James Chuck, and ecumenical efforts such as PAACCE and PACTS unabashedly affirmed their Asian Pacific American identities and sought to provide biblical and theological reflections that would support Christian forms of Asian American consciousness. However, the younger evangelicals have yet to do sustained biblical-theological work that would show the need to support Asian immigrant or pan-Asian congregations. In many cases, because the theological perspectives of the older generation emerge out of experiences in mainline Protestantism, many of the younger evangelicals either hesitate to consider them or are unfamiliar with their works. Furthermore, I believe that on a “popular” level there are biblical-theological perspectives which universalize Christian identity while erasing particular identities. I will call this a “totalitarian” Christian discipleship which is rooted in a “gnostic” dualism between “spirit and flesh.” One of the consequences of such thinking is the desire to escape one’s particular identities so that one can become simply a “Christian.” “Why deal with the politics of denominational life? Why make a big deal about one’s ethnic or racial background? All that matters is being a Christian,” this theology suggests. This “popular” level theology, which I will say more about later, has greater influence on younger Asian Pacific American Christians today than the more “racial-ethnic-centered” theological views of an earlier generation of Asian Pacific American pastors.

A Postethnic View: Should Asian Pacific American Congregations Survive?

Now all these developments may actually be good. Why should any Asian Pacific American Christian feel compelled to join an Asian Pacific American congregation or care about the political goals of an Asian Pacific American consciousness? After all, “Asian American” is a politically constructed term designed to address discrimination. If Asian Pacific Americans face little discrimination in society and by the church, then individuals ought to be free to affiliate or not affiliate with Asian Pacific American organizations or churches. Historian David Hollinger has suggested that these changing social realities now require a “postethnic” perspective. A “postethnic” perspective does not mean that Americans must erase their ethnic or racial identities and assimilate into a dominant culture. However, it does call into question the rigidity and imposition of the five recognized racial power “blocs” (European-, African-, Hispanic-, Asian-, and Native- American). Just as it was wrong to impose Anglo-conformity earlier this century, Hollinger believes that it is equally wrong to force everyone to assimilate into one of the five racial groupings. Thus, he favors a “postethnic” approach which “favors voluntary over involuntary affiliations, balances an appreciation for communities of descent with a determination to make room for new communities, and promotes solidarities of wide scope that incorporates people with different ethnic and racial backgrounds.”[6] In other words, he is arguing for individuals to freely choose how much or how little they wish to affiliate with racial, ethnic, or other identity-based groups. Eric Liu, who agrees with Hollinger, expresses it this way:

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I wish for a society without race. At bottom, I consider myself an identity libertarian. I wish for a society that treats race as an option, the way white people today are able to enjoy ethnicity as an option. As something cost-free, neutral, fluid.”[7]

African American, Native American, and Hispanic congregations may need to exist in order to sustain themselves in the face of racial discrimination. Perhaps Asian Pacific American Christians do not have to. Maybe Liu is correct when he suggests that an Asian Pacific American consciousness “was but a cocoon: something useful, something to outgrow.”[8] And maybe Asian Pacific American Christians, who seem to experience less discrimination than other racial groups, have outgrown the need for an Asian Pacific American consciousness. Therefore, the replacement of future Asian Pacific American congregations by multi-racial ones may indeed be a step in the right direction.

The Bible appears to favor this, too. Paul says in Ephesians 2:14-15 that Christ “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” In Gal. 3:26-28 “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In the Acts of the Apostles, it appears that Paul’s efforts to welcome the Gentiles into the church without imposing Jewish customs upon them further suggest that our racial and ethnic identities need to be subordinated (or relativized) in order for us to partake of a new identity in Christ.

Does this suggest that the ideal Christian congregation should be color-blind or race-neutral? Shouldn’t we all be integrating our congregations so that they can become as culturally diverse as possible? Should we therefore eliminate the “Asian Ministries” desk at Valley Forge and the Asian American Baptist Caucus? After all, these ways of acting upon our racial differences look like “affirmative action” programs (depending on one’s vantage point, such programs could also be viewed as “evangelistic outreach” to people who are disproportionately unchurched!). In a “postethnic” future which calls into question rigid racial boundaries, can racially-based churches, mission programs, and caucuses survive? Should they? If “postethnicity” is viewed positively, then should we work towards the dissolution of distinctly Asian Pacific American congregations? Should we aspire to become multi-racial and demonstrate racial reconciliation in our congregations?

Prophetic Witnesses: An Asian Pacific American Christian Future

I believe that Asian Pacific American congregations have a future as viable Christian communities despite or even because of this “postethnic” challenge. Most Asian Pacific American congregations will not dissolve or evolve into multi-racial churches, though I believe that there will be more and more pan-Asian congregations patterned after our very own Evergreen Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Most Asian Pacific American Christians will not join non-Asian Pacific American congregations. But unless the ambivalence about staying in an Asian Pacific American context is addressed biblically, theologically, sociologically, and pastorally, Asian Pacific American congregations will not effectively reach the more

than ninety percent unchurched Asian Pacific Americans. Indeed, the only persons addressing this ambivalence about Asian Pacific American identity are activists, scholars, and artists who seek to awaken Asian Pacific American consciousness for the sake of empowering the communities for social change.[9] In the following, I hope to articulate some ways of thinking biblically-theologically and sociologically in a manner which would value the “postethnic” resistance to imposing “racial bloc” identities upon Asian Pacific Americans. At the same time, I will suggest that a “postethnic” approach gives us the freedom to organize our congregations, missions, and caucuses along racial-ethnic lines—if done for the right reasons.

Biblical-Theological Foundation

Overcoming Distorted Readings of Paul: Perhaps the most creative theologian today who is addressing the issues of identity and difference is Yale Divinity School Professor, Miroslav Volf (formerly at Fuller Theological Seminary). While we were working on a theology project together a few years ago, he introduced our workgroup to his book, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. In the first chapter, he addresses biblical scholar Paul Boyarin’s argument that Paul’s desire to embrace Gentiles caused him to devalue the Jewish Law so much that he was willing to erase all ethnic and cultural particularities in order to build up the universal Church of Christ.[10] According to Boyarin, Paul believes that we must break free from our particularities—whether they be race, class, or gender—in order to fully experience the grace that God provides. Thus, as the passages in Galatians and Ephesians seem to imply, becoming a Christian means partaking in a community that is not bound to any human culture because Christ was not bound to any human culture.

Boyarin’s reading of Paul is very similar to a “popular” theology which finds itself in liberal, evangelical, and even “new age” thought. He views Paul as a “gnostic,” or one so influenced by a Hellenist (specifically Platonic or Neoplatonic) mindset. In other words, Paul’s goal in welcoming Gentiles into the Church is to bring all peoples of the earth into a spiritual realm and escape the fleshly world. If Jewish history or customs were obstacles, then simply do away with them! After all, just as Christ was able to overcome flesh in his resurrection, Christians should also be liberated from the human bondage of culture. How often have I heard people suggest that becoming a Christian exempts them from dealing with the “blood and mud” of human politics and culture?

Volf argues that Boyarin has misread Paul. Some portions of Paul’s writings show that certain Jewish practices needed to be done away with for the sake of Christ, but this does not mean that Paul wanted to escape all human particularities. Paul did not envision a “disincarnate transcendence, but the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ” who has “a body that has suffered on the cross.” Volf continues: “In subsequent centuries Christian theologians have arguably made the particularity of Christ’s body the foundation of the reinterpretation of platonic tradition. As Augustine puts it, he discovered in the Neoplatonists that ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ but did not find there that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ (Confessions VII, 9). The grounding of unity and universality in the scandalous particularity of the suffering body of God’s Messiah is what makes Paul’s thought structurally so profoundly different” from Boyarin’s view.[11]

Thus, the “scandal of particularity” makes it impossible for Christians to read Paul in a “gnostic” or Platonic way. Our ethnic and racial identities may not be rigid and fixed, but they are still part of who we are as humans, created by God. In the crucifixion, God demonstrates that He cares for our particularities. In the incarnation, God reveals his suffering love for his Creation. Throughout Scripture and the “orthodox” Christian tradition, God the Redeemer is identified as God the Creator. Therefore, we are to honor our earthly particularities as gifts of the Creator even as we worship only the Giver. Our ethnic and racial identities have intrinsic value to God. Thus, we would be mistaken to exchange our earthbound particularities for a distorted interpretation of Paul. We would be mistaken to think that heaven or the Church is a place where our particularities are erased or dissolved.

The Mission of “Resident Aliens”: Another theological perspective that can be misinterpreted is that represented by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. In their now classic Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, they argue that the Church of Christ is as much a sociological reality as nation states and ethnic groups. It is a culture formed by the biblical witness and Christian tradition, thus, should be respected as a counter-cultural community; one that is in, but not of this world. Consequently, the Church should not compromise its identity to support any political or worldly agendas. The great sin of the Church, they argue, has been its captivity to the “world’s” agenda—what they call “Constantinianism.”[12] This results in allowing the world to define the role, function, and mission of the church. For example, in the minds of most people in our society, the church is supposed to uphold a culture’s morality system or social service to the poor. Furthermore, Christians are to keep their religion a private matter so that they do not challenge society’s status quo. The church, they argue must avoid “Constantinianism” by returning to its New Testament roots.

This, I believe, is a fundamentally sound argument. As an American Baptist, this theology resonates with me. However, it can also be misinterpreted. Some think that if the Christian community has its own distinct biblically-shaped culture, then all other particularities ought to be erased. Others think that issues of race relations are part of the “world’s agenda” so they ought not be brought into the church. In response to the first distortion, I refer the above section about misreading Paul. In addition, none of these theologians would say that Christian identity erases all other identities. To suggest this is to incorporate the methods of “identity imperialism” or “totalitarianism” into the church. All of these theologians would say that different people express Christian identity in diverse ways, but the biblical narrative is what holds all Christians together.

The question of whether issues of “race relations” are worldly matters foreign to the church is a more difficult one to address. Few people today, I think, will deny that the involvement of Christians in the Civil Rights movement was an expression of Christian faith and mission. In fact, I would argue that the struggle for human rights and social justice is not a “worldly” matter which the church should avoid. Rather, these concerns are central to the biblical narrative. The central thrust of Scripture reveals a God who is very much concerned with redeeming a world fallen into and crushed down by sin. God is very much concerned about both the perpetrators and victims of sin. God wants to see the original intentions of Creation fulfilled in the coming Kingdom. Moreover, in Scripture, God has always chosen a people to be the messengers of the promise of redemption in Jesus, the Messiah. Christians are to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant to be a “blessing to the world” through both personal evangelism and social justice efforts. Thus, conversations about race relations and social justice are not foreign to the biblical witness at all. If anything, what is amiss among those who think race relations is alien to the Church, is a truncated understanding of the biblical mission of the Church.

Furthermore, a distorted understanding of the history of American Christianity also creates a feeling of distance from talk about social justice and race relations. I suggest that one read Donald Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage to get a sense of how central social justice was to nineteenth-century evangelicalism. The first abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, and social reform activists were evangelicals who were converted by evangelists like Charles Finney.

Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for Christians to address matters related to race and racism. Once we are allowed to talk about the historical realities of race and racism in our congregations, we can then address the serious questions concerning whether it is legitimate to organize Asian Pacific American ministries and congregations along racial lines.

Assessing the Impact of Anti-Asian Racism

In my research on Chinese Protestantism in North America, I interviewed many Chinese pastors about their faith journeys and worldviews. Two questions I asked always caused my interviewees to hesitate: (1) why should we minister exclusively to Chinese people? (2) did or would you ever consider serving in a non-Chinese congregation? The overwhelming majority of the responses were couched in the language of personal call or pragmatic explanations. Respondents said they would not consider shepherding non-Chinese congregations because they were called to serve the Chinese. Moreover, the rationale for ministering exclusively to Chinese people was due to the practical need for pastors who understood the language and culture. Undoubtedly, these pastors were called to serve in Chinese (in some cases, pan-Asian) churches. However, one would expect God to call many more Chinese to pastor non-Chinese churches if we were truly becoming a postethnic society. Perhaps God is calling many Asian Pacific Americans to pastor non-Asian congregations, but God’s people are not hearing the call?

What this point illustrates is that race and racism is still alive and continues to affect Asian Pacific American Christians. The inability or unwillingness of the Chinese pastors to talk about their ministry in terms of racial discrimination also shows that many of our Asian Pacific American Christian leaders have yet to wrestle with or value the historical experience and contemporary reality of Asian Pacific Americans. Nevertheless, the lack of engagement on the part of our Asian Pacific American Christian leaders with race and racism is understandable, though not, in my opinion, justifiable. Two underlying sociological assumptions appear to be dominate in the way Asian Pacific American Christian leaders talk about the Asian Pacific American community and the future of Asian Pacific American congregations. Both emerge from social scientific theories that equate the experiences of Asian Pacific Americans with those of European immigrants earlier this century. The first assumption is that the type of “discrimination” Asians experience is more like the kind experienced by European immigrants than the kind experienced by African Americans. This discrimination will eventually disappear as Asian Pacific Americans assimilate into American society. Which leads to the second assumption: namely, that Asian Pacific Americans will assimilate just as the European immigrants assimilated. Thus, there seems to be a widespread belief even among Asian Pacific American Christians that if immigration from Asia ceases, there will no longer be need for Asian language congregations. Therefore, the Asian Pacific American churches are only temporary. Eventually their children will join the mainstream churches. In other words, “assimilationist” sociologists took the European immigrant experience and transposed them on African and Asian Americans.

However, these assumptions are questionable precisely because they do not take into consideration the fact that Asian Pacific Americans are not treated like European immigrants—nor are they treated like African Americans. Mia Tuan’s important study of third through fifth generation Chinese and Japanese in California demonstrates this point. In her recent book, Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? The Asian Ethnic Experience Today, Tuan discovers that, unlike second and third generation European immigrants, Asian Pacific Americans, who otherwise have achieved high educational and professional status or have been raised in America, cannot easily integrate into white mainstream America, despite media portraits of Asian Pacific Americans as “model minorities.” Like middle or upper class African Americans, their physical features—something Asian Pacific Americans and African Americans cannot control—are still obstacles for full integration. Furthermore, unlike African Americans, Asian Pacific Americans cannot avoid the tinge of “foreignness.” Therefore, despite the fact that middle class, third through fifth generation Asian Pacific Americans, like children of European immigrants, have acquired some degree of freedom to chose their ethnic identities in private, they do not have this freedom in public. In other words, contrary to Eric Liu’s belief (along with many Asian Pacific American Christians), “white privilege” continues to create a climate of anti-Asian racism in this country. Tuan concludes:

I am skeptical that within a few generations Asian-Americans would automatically be absorbed into the mainstream. Generations of highly acculturated Asian ethnics who speak without an accent have lived in this country, and yet most white Americans have not heard of or ever really seen them. They are America’s invisible citizenry, the accountants who do our taxes, engineers who safeguard our infrastructures, and pharmacists who fill our prescriptions. Nevertheless, over the years they have continued to be treated and seen as other.”[13]

Like “assimilationist” sociologists, “postethnic” advocates exhibit the same unwillingness to address the problem of racism. What the “postethnic” perspective does not take seriously is that the “ethnic options” which children of European immigrants possess is a “white privilege” people of color do not have. Therefore, while it is comforting to know that many racial boundaries are blurring and people feel freer to marry across racial lines, I am concerned that this will give the impression that “racism” is no longer a problem in society and in our churches.

On the other hand, unlike those who would talk about a “colorblind” society, the “postethnic” perspective respects the right and freedom of people to organize along race lines. Instead of expecting people naturally to “fit into” one of the five “racial blocs,” race-based organizations now must work harder and more consciously at recruiting volunteers to support their causes. They must also respect the right of individuals not to join their organizations. But, most importantly, they must recognize that they cannot make their “race” their ultimate concern. The “postethnic” perspective reminds Asian Pacific American Christians that our ultimate value is not to be placed in our racial identities, but in the God who transcends, yet is deeply concerned about, all cultures.

I recognize how uncomfortable it is to talk about these points in a setting where we want to affirm a Christian fellowship of love. And believe me, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of the “beloved community” is at the core of my Christian beliefs. However, it seems that in our conversation about the future of Asian Pacific American Christianity we need to “speak the truth in love.” It is difficult to talk about “white privilege” in an Asian Pacific American congregation when many of our members have married Caucasians. It is uncomfortable to talk about experiencing anti-Asian discrimination in the presence of our Caucasian brothers and sisters in Christ. The easiest thing to do is to ignore both terms or to subordinate our concerns as Asian Pacific Americans under a race-neutral banner. The second easiest thing to do is to “solve the problem” by talking about “racial reconciliation”—though in the minds of most Christians, the races that seem to need to reconcile the most are Blacks and Whites, not Asians and Whites (Asian-Black racial reconciliation is even further off the radar). The third easiest thing to do would be to accept the views of scholars of assimilation and allow our Asian Pacific American congregations to become other than Asian Pacific American.

However, despite the discomfort of confronting “white privilege” and addressing the discrimination that the Asian Pacific American members in our congregations face, I believe that it is our responsibility as Asian Pacific American Christians to deal with it. Unless we speak openly of “white privilege” and “racism” we will not be able to discern the difference between idolatry and the Gospel of Christ. Furthermore, we do the Caucasian and bi-racial members of our congregations a disservice by shielding from them the real pains Asian Pacific Americans experience in North American society. But if we truly wish to repudiate the idolatry of “white privilege” I am convinced that we in North America dare not neglect the spiritual discipline of reflecting on Christ’s identification with the historical and contemporary “racial suffering.” The idolatry of racism and “white privilege” hurts everyone, including Caucasian sisters and brothers in Christ. We, therefore, dare not study the Bible or do theological reflection without taking into consideration the historical context in which we live today. If we take these contexts seriously, we will be able to develop frameworks for thinking creatively about the future of not just Asian Pacific American Christianity, but also of all Christianity in the United States.

Being a Prophetic Community of Faith

Having laid down the biblical-theological foundations for recognizing the necessity of Asian Pacific American congregations to exist, having suggested that our analysis of the Asian Pacific American situation is deficient unless we account for the persistence of anti-Asian racism in North American society, what can we say about the future of Asian Pacific American congregations? Why should the Asian Pacific American church continue, whether in the form of ethnic immigrant churches or pan-Asian congregations?

I want to propose that the existence and mission of Asian Pacific American Christianity is to be a prophetic witness against the idolatries of racism and “white privilege” in North American society and churches. In this sense, the Asian Pacific American church stands in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, which calls Israel to accountability for its sins. Stated more positively, Asian Pacific American Christianity is a prophetic community of faith that will help guide American Christianity towards the global, multi-racial, multi-lingual, and yet-to-be-realized Reign of God in Christ. In this sense, the Asian Pacific American church stands within Christ’s “Great Commission” that was inaugurated at Pentecost. But in order for the Asian Pacific American church to be a prophetic community of faith, there must be awakened within it a Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness. Our older generation called it an Asian American theology of liberation, though as an evangelical, I prefer to see it as an Asian Pacific American consciousness which sees our Christian faith in a new light—one that affirms Asian Pacific Americans. Otherwise, we will uncritically imbibe theological perspectives from popular, liberal, conservative, and “new age” sources that will only create greater self-contempt (what Dr. Ken Fong calls “Asian American self-hatred”). What can a Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness look like? Here are some very perfunctory ideas.

1. A Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness seeks to organize Christian Asian Pacific Americans along racial lines as a prophetic critique against the idolatries of racism and as a proclamation of the truly worldwide reign of Christ. Therefore, Asian Pacific American Christians do not form congregations, organizations, or caucuses to separate from the rest of the Church. Rather, they organize to free our brothers and sisters in Christ from the Euro-American cultural captivity of the Gospel.

2. A Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness recognizes that racism in society and the American church are obstacles for the advancement of the Gospel among Asian Pacific American communities. Hence, the existence of Asian Pacific American Christians emphasizes that reaching Asian Pacific Americans for Christ is a priority for the American church.

3. A Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness critically assesses secular Asian Pacific American movements and consciousness raising. While recognizing the truths found in Asian American studies, it will also critique distortions or uninformed perceptions of religion.

4. A Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness shall always embrace non-Asian Pacific Americans with love, though it will have as its priority developing Christian Asian Pacific American leaders for the Church and the world. This is a priority that Christian Asian Pacific Americans expect non-Asian Pacific Americans to understand.

Conclusion

Racial separation is clearly offensive to God. However, so is racial injustice or privileging. In North America, the only justification for maintaining racially separate congregations is the recognition of the historical and contemporary reality of racism and white racial privileging—a sin that permeates our society, our denomination, our congregations, and each of us individually. Even in a “postethnic America,” there needs to be a voice that speaks to this and points to the Reign of God. I believe God is calling Asian Pacific American Christians for such as time as this—to question the assumptions of our society (such as the “model minority”) and to show the way to the future of Christianity in North America.

Notes

[1] Eric Liu, The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker (New York: Random House, 1998), 82.

[2] David Cho, “Asian Americans’ changing face of Christianity on campus, ” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Feb. 2, 1999): Rl, 4; Rudy Busto, “The Gospel According to the Model Minority? Hazarding an Interpretation of Asian American Evangelical College Students, “Amerasia JournaI 22: 1 (1996): 133-147.

[3] See Yen Le Espiritu, Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).

[4] Jere Takahashi, Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997): 206.

[5] Eric Liu, 78.

[6] David A. Hollinger, Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (New York: BasicBooks, 1995), 3.

[7] Eric Liu, 65.

[8] Eric Liu, 83.

[9] William Wei, The Asian American Movement, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

[10] Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley, 1994).

[11] Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN:Abingdon Press, 1996): 47.

[12] This view was originally inspired by the Anabaptist John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus and George Lindbeck’s narrative theology and continues in Rodney Clapp, A Particular People (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996).

[13] Mia Tuan, Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? The Asian Ethnic Experience Today (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 159.

Backsliding into Fundamentalism and the Promise of Asian American Historical Theology (Part 3 of “Color-Blinded by the Light”)

Wow! It’s been so long since I picked up on my promised three-part reflection about the “American Empire and the Deconstruction of Asian American Racial Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area” I wasn’t satisfied with this part of my AAAS presentation, but never had a chance to get back to writing. So this blog entry can serve as sort of a part 3A.

isaac-forum-nor-cal-2016This will be a summary of the presentation I gave at the ISAAC Forum Nor Cal on Sept. 27, 2016. The goals of the Forum was to explore the future of Asian American Christianity. What needs to be given up and changed? What will be retained? So here’s my take:

Asian American Christians are backsliding into fundamentalism.

This statement, of course, reveals my affinity for “progressive” evangelicalism. What most people don’t know is that I grew up as a fundamentalist Christian and almost gave up on my faith when I could no longer stand its judgmental and controlling attitudes. Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship rescued me by demonstrating that one could be an evangelical while engaging intellectual questions honestly, respecting (and befriending) those who disagreed, and participating in a grace-filled and grateful community.

Later, I discovered that I had quite a few Asian American evangelical peers who shared a similar journey. Many, like Louis Lee (who we are honoring) felt called to build Asian American evangelical solidarity in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But today, I’m pessimistic about Asian American Christianity’s future. We face a vanishing sense of Asian American Christian solidarity and cooperation.

There are many reasons for the disappearance of Asian American Christian solidarity – among these are

  • the rise and dominance of immigrant Asians in our churches who do not identify with the racial struggles of Asian Americans and other racial minorities;
  • the power that the “model minority” and “assimilative multicultural” narratives have to draw Asian Americans away from the “niche” or “ghetto” identifications.

But in this presentation I want to focus on a third factor that is especially acute among Asian American evangelicals, namely…

The Backslide into Fundamentalism

In the last ten years, many of my colleagues and I have noticed the rise of fundamentalist attitudes among the younger  Asian American evangelical leaders. As a young evangelical historian, I used to think that the Fundamentalist movement had one positive virtue: it saved American Christianity from a closed-system modernism by protecting the authority of Scripture and the supernaturalism of five fundamentalist doctrines. But these days, I’m less convinced of this. Fundamentalism replaced a vibrant 19th century evangelical world view with a Gnostic and Manichean view of the cosmos. It also locked epistemology into an outdated “common sense” philosophy (the “self-evident” argument). See Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994). Also, recent studies are revealing the close ties between fundamentalist (later, evangelical) and corporate leaders to create the current evangelical empire that is closely allied to the Religious Right. See Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America (New York, 2015) and Timothy E. W. Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Evangelicals have attempted to dig themselves out of fundamentalism since the mid-twentieth century. See George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1988) and Molly Worthen’s  Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2016). Instead, the current scene has become increasingly polarized. A revival of fundamentalist-like evangelicals have been pitted against progressive evangelicals.

The backslide to fundamentalism, I believe, is the greatest cause for pessimism about the future of Asian American Christian solidarity. I’m probably overstating this, but consider the following suppressive practices that appear to be on the rise:

  1. Suppression of cooperation: The legacy of Louis Lee and his generation was to build pan-Asian cooperation. Today, we witness a resurgence of “separated silos” centered around the teachings of (White) evangelical preaching “giants.” Pan-Asian cooperation across theological or brand differences are rarely seen anymore. So branded (or brain-washed?) are they, that they can no longer worship outside the environment that they’ve been drawn to – usually while in college.
  2. Suppression of intellectual integrity: We are seeing the rise of ecclesial echo chambers of absolute certitude. Young people can no longer hear anything other than one perspective, right or wrong. In many of the settings, there is no nuance of biblical or theological interpretation. I believe we are returning to what Mark Noll called the “The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism.” Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
  3. Suppression of women leadership: Earlier, egalitarian and some complementarian Christians encouraged women with leadership or teaching gifts to lead and teach. Everyone, male and female, was encouraged to do all they can to proclaim the gospel since reaching the lost was the highest priority. But now we are witnessing the actual practice of suppressing women in leadership in campus ministries and churches. The fundamentalist suppression of women leaders in the early 20th century has renewed itself among many Asian American evangelicals today under the debatable idea that female subordination is a core doctrine of faith. See Margaret Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale University Press, 1996).
  4. Suppression of Asian American identity: In a fundamentalist (and conservative evangelical) ethos, culture, ethnicity, and race are irrelevant  – if not idolatrous. Doctrinal truth is emphasized while all things created and material are trivialized. A color-blind Christianity makes it impossible for Asian Americans to reflect on their own social location and cultural contexts (as I have argued earlier).

So where does our help come from? What can Asian American Christians who are trapped in this new fundamentalist echo chamber do?

The Promise of Historical Theology

We need a new cadre of Asian American Christian leaders who learn from history. Recently, there has been interest in doing evangelical theology and ministry in the contemporary Asian American contexts. But, like systematic theology, these efforts tend to isolate the contemporary experience from the past. They also rely too heavily on sociology. Because conversation partners are contemporaries who share so much in common, little can be done to change the echo chamber effect of fundamentalism. In his recent book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (2011), Mark Noll proposes to rebuild the evangelical “mind” with greater attention to the historical sources of Christian thought rather than on a broken fundamentalist foundation. I argue that this approach would also benefit Asian American evangelicals as we look to the future. Allow me to illustrate with three Asian American Christian historical examples…

Jee Gam photo.pngJee Gam [Chu Jin] (1849-1910)

In 1895 Jee Gam was the first Chinese American ordained as a Congregationalist minister, though he was still unable to become a U.S. citizen. From the very beginning, Jee Gam used his influence and access to Protestant resources (newspapers, journals, mission boards, church networks) to fight for Chinese American political rights. In speeches, sermons, private letters, and public writings, he championed Chinese American suffrage and combated Chinese exclusion, passed in 1882 by the federal government.

Jee Gam based his arguments for political rights on a vision of Christianity that emphasized egalitarianism and universal brotherhood. In an era when many Americans believed that the Chinese were too heathenish to genuinely convert to Christianity, Jee Gam insisted on the religion’s inclusivity. “I am a Chinaman and a Christian,” he wrote in 1892. “I am not any less Chinese for being a follower of Christ…. I am in some sense also an American, for I have lived in America almost twice as long as in China.” He went on to call Chinese exclusion “un-American, barbarous and inhuman. It is unchristian, for it is contrary to the teaching of Christ.” From http://relwest.blogspot.com/2012/06/jee-gam-and-chinese-american-religious.html

I highlight Jee Gam because even though we would recognize him as an evangelical, his commitment to speaking out for racial justice would be unfamiliar to many of us today. He identified with an abolitionist interpretation of Scripture and faith which valued the dignity of all humans created in God’s image – in this life. Most fundamentalists and evangelicals today have unconsciously adopted a slave owner hermeneutic. This approach stresses saving souls for heaven and keeping the status quo in worldly affairs. Learning about the history of biblical interpretation can help us break free from the fundamentalist echo chamber. See Larry R. Morrison, “The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830,” The Journal of Religious Thought, Fall 1980/Winter 1981 (Vol. 37 Issue 2) pp 16-29.

Mabel Lee Metro Baptist 1923 sm

Mabel Lee, a newly minted Ph.D. (Metropolitan Baptists, 1923)

Mabel Lee (1896-1966)

Mabel Lee was a pastor’s kid. Her father, Lee To, had been the pastor of the Baptist Chinese Mission in New York’s Chinatown since 1904. Born in Canton in 1896, Mabel accompanied her father to the United States and studied in American public schools. She enrolled in Barnard College and graduated in 1916. She then earned a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University in 1921. Her dissertation was published later that year. In addition to her father’s evangelical piety, she also shared his zeal to engage the social problems of the Chinese community in New York and overseas. During her college years, she integrated her devotion to faith, the reconstruction of China, and woman’s suffrage. From https://timtseng.net/2013/12/12/asian-american-legacy-dr-mabel-lee/

I think Mabel Lee could be considered evangelical, though she lived during a time when a liberal theology was dominant in the U.S. She definitely was not a fundamentalist. Her fundamentalist peers were campaigning to remove women from church leadership. But before the rise of fundamentalism, there was a very strong woman’s missionary movement. In many Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal denominations, women were ordained pastors. So historically, however the bible was interpreted, women like Mabel Lee were accepted as leaders in churches until fundamentalism emerged.

Hideo Hashimoto 1955

unknown, “Hideo Hashimoto,” Lewis & Clark Digital Collections, accessed October 23, 2013, http://digitalcollections.lclark.edu/items/show/7264

Hideo Hashimoto (1911-2003)

Finally, I’d like to share about Hideo Hashimoto, a Methodist pastor and professor. Hashimoto graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and then from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He served several pastorates, including one in a temporary church he helped establish in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. After receiving his doctor of theology degree from Pacific School of Religion, he joined the faculty of Lewis & Clark. He taught in the Department of Religious Studies from 1949 until his retirement in 1976.

Hashimoto’s mom died in Hiroshima when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb. As a pastor and professor, he was known as a “great peace lover and activist… an energetic social activist up to his death.” He advocated for civil rights, pacifism, and nuclear disarmament.

From http://legacy.lclark.edu/dept/chron/profsmournedw04.html

Also https://timtseng.net/2013/10/23/asian-american-legacy-hideo-hashimoto/

I mention Hideo because he was influenced by the mainline Protestant tradition of social engagement. As a pacifist, Hashimoto didn’t completely agree with Reinhold Neibuhr, but respected theological realism deeply. The neo-orthodoxy of the mid-twentieth century proved helpful after the trauma of the Japanese American internment camps and the loss of his mother from a nuclear bomb. Looking at the life and thought Asian Americans in the mainline Protestant tradition can provide Asian American Christians guidance for public engagement – guidance that I believe is sorely lacking among Asian American evangelicals today.

Smithsonial African American Museum.jpgSmithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

Let me conclude by noting that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened last Saturday (9/24/16) in Washington DC. One of the lessons of the Civil Rights movement was that African-Americans have a history that should not be ignored or erased. When President Obama was elected, many pundits, including many white evangelicals, quickly declared that the United States was, at last, a post-racial nation. But, as we have seen in the recent shootings of African-Americans, we are far from being post-racial or multi-cultural.

In any event, what would a post-racial church or multi-cultural society look like? Does it mean forgetting and erasing Blacks from American history? Does it mean erasing the different Asian American ethnicities from our collective memories? Does it mean that Asian American Christians have no history in the history of Christianity? One of the first historians of the African American experience, Carter G. Woodson, said that “If a race has no history, it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

Likewise, so long as Asian American Christians remain in the echo chamber of an ahistorical theology, culture, and community so pervasive among fundamentalism, we too stand in danger of being exterminated.

On the other hand, if we put resources into integrating Asian American Christian history into our faith, preaching, ministries, and communities, we may have a future. And we will have something to contribute to Worldwide Christianity and God’s kingdom.

Again, I’m pessimistic and pray that God will help me overcome my lack of faith.

“History is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” — James Baldwin

 

My AAAS Presentation – Part 2/3

As promised, I am posting part 2 of 3 of my presentation at the Asian American Studies Conference:  “Color-blinded by the Light: The American Evangelical Empire and the Deconstruction of Asian American Racial Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area”

I almost forgot to post this because I’m having so much fun at the Hispanic and Asian North American consultation at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School [click da link]

But be warned, I mention some people by name who may not agree with my assessment. Let me say right now that my assessment does not diminish my respect for these individuals or their disciples. Okay, so we now move on another way that evangelicalism deconstructs Asian American consciousness and identity….

B. Fundamentalist Gnosticism (intellectual absolutism and moral hierarchy)

Earlier I had mentioned that evangelicalism is far more porous and fragmented than what is usually portrayed in the media. This is especially true for theological reflection. But one particular strand that has blossomed over the last twenty years has attracted many second-generation Asian American evangelicals. Its representative voices are not unified, but are very strident in their confidence in the absolute correctness of their theology and biblical interpretation. Among these I would count superstars teachers/preachers such as John MacArthur and John Piper (locally Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church). To a lesser extent the Gospel Coalition can fit under this canopy of what some have labeled neo-Calvinism or, more pejoratively, neo-fundamentalism. Personally, I would label this theological expression a form of fundamentalist Gnosticism – a kind of teaching that rejects personal, social, cultural, and historical contexts even more aggressively than does the iconoclastic tradition.

The emergence of fundamentalist Gnosticism parallels, and can be seen as a reaction to the increased ethnic and religious diversity and rise of postmodernist thought and sentiments in late Twentieth Century United States. Since the 1980s many “younger evangelicals” have sought to adjust their inherited evangelicalism to the changing culture. This birthed a broad and diverse “emergent Christianity” movement whose most identifiable representative is Brian McLaren. Most emergent Christians express discomfort with the Christian Right’s political aims, are egalitarian with regards to gender, and seek to reform what they perceive to be culturally irrelevant practices in neo-evangelicalism.

A powerful cadre of preacher/teachers mentioned earlier responded to the emergents and other perceived drift from evangelical truth, by organizing teaching platforms to defend orthodoxy against cultural accommodation and theological error. Their teachings offer absolute dogmatic certitude within a perceived airtight logical system. They have attracted a sizable following of largely evangelical young men who came of age in the late 1990s and later. And, I argue, they represent a contemporary form of gnosticism.

Fundamentalist Gnostics are locked into an intellectual system that dismisses history, race, and ethnicity. The sole source of authority is the Bible, usually read through the lens of neo-Calvinism. They usually claim a literal, ahistorical, non-cultural way of interpreting the Bible. Giving historical and cultural contexts any authority in biblical interpretation would be a concession to the “world’s way of thinking.”  If salvation is about conversion to a new creation, it means that the old must pass away – or at very least, be rendered irrelevant to faith. Thus, history and the contemporary world is irrelevant. This is one of the reasons why many evangelicals are so quick to embrace a post-racial vision. After all, in order to think about race, one must allow social science and theory to have authoritative claims to truth.

As J. Kameron Carter suggests in his very important study entitled Race: A Theological Account, modern Christian theology and popular culture assumes a “hierarchy of anthropological essences and the supremacy of those of a pneumatic nature within the hierarchy.” Anything rooted in history and race are considered inferior to the spiritual realm. Carter suggests that this tendency is more akin to Gnostic desire to repudiate the Jewish roots of Christianity in favor of a spiritualized Christ. Indeed, by Orientalizing the Jewish Jesus, the Gnostic strategy was to establish a hierarchy of spiritual elites. Thus began what Carter calls “a discourse of death, the death of material existence.” This is one of the origins of racial ideology in the West. And it lies beneath the Fundamentalist absolutism of these preacher-teachers who are popular among so many young adults today.

Why do these teachers attract Asian American evangelicals? Most of the Asian ethnic churches that younger Asian American evangelicals grew up in are family-oriented communities. They therefore do not invest heavily into intense theological teaching. Younger Asian Americans, after some exposure to these teachers, begin to perceive their ethnic home churches to be inferior or sub-Christian enclaves. When interviewed, they often describe their churches as culture-bound ethnic social clubs with shallow (or non-existent) Christian teaching. Indeed, many young adults become avowedly hostile to any cultural “seepage” into their belief structure and seek to join churches where a purer gospel is preached, a more passionate spiritual worship is experienced, and a tight and fervent community of faith is found. Asian American evangelicals claim that none of these attributes characterizes the Asian immigrant congregations that they grew up in.

The practical effects of Asian American evangelical attraction to fundamentalist gnosis is to be completely severed from any discussion that legitimizes Asian American identity. To “transform” culture means erasing it in favor of a more truthful Christian belief system. In the Bay Area, there are numerous incidents of Asian American disciples of John MacArthur who have caused division in Asian American congregations because of their insistence of promoting their particular brand of gospel truth. Rather than attempting to understand or listen to Asian American contexts, they seek to eradicate its presence. So in these cases, fundamentalist gnosticism does more than deconstruct Asian American identity and culture, it replaces it with a worldview that believes itself to be superior to human culture.

Fundamentalist gnosticism has many different forms, so I am not making a blanket assessment. But it has the potential to lead to abusive practices as any dogmatic ideology can do. For the purposes of this paper, I argue that this evangelical intellectual style renders it almost impossible to think about Asian American identity and culture. Later in this paper, I will discuss some ways that Asian American evangelicals have been able to or can respond to the excesses of this way of thinking.

C. Evangelical consumerism:

The iconoclastic impulse and fundamentalist gnosticism are two important factors that lead to the deconstruction of Asian American identity and consciousness. But I believe that the most powerful factor is evangelical consumerism.

In the Bay Area, Roman Catholicism represents the largest and most dominant expression of Christianity. Mainline Protestantism has declined precipitously. Among Protestants in general, evangelicals now dominate numerically – but not politically (e.g., the largest Presbyterian congregations are seceding from the S.F. Presbytery in large part, because of the Presbytery’s willingness to allow ministers to conduct same sex marriages). But evangelicals are also relatively marginalized from mainstream Bay Area culture, for they offer no unified public voice. Some participate in conservative family values activism, but most prefer to avoid this form of public engagement. The most common form of public engagement is in the religious marketplace where evangelicals tirelessly place their “spiritual products.” Such products include packaged DVDs and curriculum of “platformed” authors such as John Ortberg, Chip Ingram, and others. Churches (especially mega-churches) are branded carefully and marketed heavily. Indeed, superstar speakers and brand name congregations attract spiritual consumers. This has been the main focus of Bay Area evangelicals for now.

Asian American evangelicals, raised in upper middle-class and well-educated families, are drawn to what they perceive to be quality brands. Drawing her data from the 2008 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey (CMPS), Janelle Wong notes that “Asian Americans who identify as born again Christians are more than twice as likely to report graduating from college than any other group. There is a substantial income gap between Asian Americans who identify as born again and other groups as well. Approximately 25 percent evangelical Asian Americans claims that their annual household income consists of $100,000 or more, compared to about 10 to 15 percent of other groups. White evangelicals are the group most likely to own their homes (88%), followed by Asian American (73%), Latino (69%) and black (64%) evangelicals.”[5]

This certainly characterizes many younger Asian American evangelicals in the Bay Area. To extend the data further, Lisa Sun-Hee Park, in her book, Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs (Stanford University Press, 2005) examined the consumerist behavior of second generation Asian Americans. She suggested that these Asian Americans exert social citizenship through material consumption. They felt compelled to remind others of their legitimate existence in the United States by demonstrating a form of conspicuous consumption.

This may indeed translate into religious consumption. More than one respondent I spoke to shared this sentiment (to paraphrase): “City Church in San Francisco [a protégé of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City with a very large percentage of Asian Americans] is like Stanford, the Chinese immigrant church like is a community college.”

****

So what do you think? Look for part three where I will assess the evangelical empire and discuss Asian American evangelical reconstructive efforts.

NOTE:

[5] Janelle S. Wong, “Evangelical Asian Americans and Latinos: Reshaping the Right?” (Paper presented at the Cornell University Institute for the Social Sciences Immigration Seminar, April 30, 2012), p. 12.

My presentation at AAAS: Color-blinded by the Light (or why Evangelicals don’t get race). Part 1

I finally have found some time to blog! I hope I can do so regularly.

I’d like to begin by sharing my presentation at the 2013 Association of Asian American Studies Meeting in Seattle on April 20. This was for the “Empire and Asian American Religions: approaching religion in ethnic studies” panel organized by Justin Tse.

I’m not a card-carrying member of the AAAS, just a critical consumer of the scholarship. As a university-based professional society, it has always been difficult for theological educators and pastors like myself to gain a foothold. Nevertheless, there is some good to commend to the Christian community.

So, here is the first part of the presentation, “Color-blinded by the light: The American Evangelical Empire and the Deconstruction of Asian American Racial Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area.” I’ve revised it for greater clarity, so it’s not exactly what I verbally presented.

Introduction

Recent informal surveys of Asian American evangelical young adults reveal greater antipathy towards their racial and ethnic identities than other Asian Americans. I need to qualify this point. First, I am talking about English-speaking, 1.5 or more generation who are more acculturated to the United States than immigrant Asian Americans. Second, this statement does not necessarily suggest that evangelical millennials are less interested in their racial and ethnic identities than non-religious Asian American millennials. After all, in a time when there is great confusion over racial identity and racism, it should be no surprise that race is perceived as having declining significance. So Asian American evangelical antipathy towards race and ethnicity may be more symptomatic than exceptional of a prevalent post-racial ethos.

Nevertheless Asian Americans are gaining notoriety within evangelical circles because of their increased presence within White dominant evangelical organizations. Asian Americans have a higher participation rate in predominantly White evangelicals organizations than Latino/Hispanics or African Americans. Their representation in college campus ministries has increased markedly.

For example, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship reports that 20% of the students who participate regularly with Intervarsity are Asian American (5,758) a 32% increase in the past 5 years. Sociologist Jerry Park notes that when compared with Intervarsity’s African American and Latino student ministries, Asian Americans form the largest minority group.[1] Also, of the 15,800 who attended Urbana 2009, 3,849 (24.4%) delegates were of Asian or South Asian descent.[2] I’ve heard that it was close to 40% at the most recent convention, Urbana 2012.

Another example: In the San Francisco Bay Area, anecdotal evidence suggests that more second-or-later generation Asian Americans participate in White or multi-ethnic mega-churches than in ethnic-specific or pan-ethnic Asian congregations. Perhaps up to 40 percent worship at City Church in San Francisco, about 1,000 at Abundant Life, and sizable percentages of several large congregations.

Where Asian American evangelicals worship is another small indicator of their antipathy towards their Asian American racial-ethnic identity. Few express concern or interests in issues that Asian American communities face.

A generational change?

This contrasts sharply with an earlier generation of Bay Area Asian American Protestants. Raised in historically mainline Protestant Chinatown and Japanese churches, these Asian Americans were inspired by the Civil Rights movement to bring about social justice in both church and society. They more clearly articulated racial identification and solidarity as vehicles for bringing about racial justice. And they were rooted in a theological tradition that encouraged faith in public life.

Within their denominations, these church leaders formed Asian American caucuses in the 1970s. They pressed for greater representation and resources within the historic denominations. The first Asian American theological center, the now defunct Pacific and Asian Center for Theology and Strategy (PACTS) was organized at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley in 1972.[3] A generation of Asian American theologians flourished within mainline Protestant seminaries.[4] Leaders such as Roy Sano, Paul Nagano, Lloyd Wake, Jitsui Morikawa, and others brought Asian American consciousness to the forefront of Protestantism.

Many Asian American activists also grew up in these churches, including political leaders such as Representative Mike Honda and Former Washington State Governor and U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke. The Redress movement enlisted among its leaders several Japanese American clergymen from these churches. Indeed, many of the founders of Asian American Studies and the Asian American movement were themselves connected to an Asian American mainline Protestant church at some point (e.g., Ling Chi Wang, Russell Leong).

But today’s Asian American evangelicals have a very different worldview, especially with regards to racial identity. As Russell Jeung suggests in Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches (Rutgers University Press, 2004), pastors of evangelical Asian American churches tend to focus on a common lifestyle rather than racially identity in their ministry. Racial identity is not necessarily something to be embraced – especially if they do not want to alienate the Asian American members or potential non-Asian American members. On the other hand, pastors of mainline Protestant Asian American churches are more open to celebrating ethnic and racial identities by more consciously incorporating customs into the community life.

In this paper, I will argue that the dominance of an evangelical intellectual-cultural ethos (ideology would be too strong) within American Protestantism is the leading factor for the current Deconstruction of Asian American identity. I will then suggest that a small, but emergent strand of younger Asian American evangelical leaders are offering a possible reconstructive effort.

The American Evangelical Empire

Janelle Wong and Jane Iwamura noted that among conservative Asian American Christians, “social factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, and class are sublimated to a dominating theological ideology that holds sway over the agency of their members.” [Source: Wong, Janelle S., and Jane Naomi Iwamura. 2007. “The Moral Minority: Race, Religion, and Conservative Politics in Asian America.” In Religion and Social Justice for Immigrants, edited by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press]

In general, this is a true statement. It reflects the power of the Evangelical “Empire” among Asian Americans. But I’d like to unpack that a bit by suggesting that this dominant theological ideology (or intellectual-cultural ethos) is much more diverse and fragmented than may be suggested. Furthermore, another factor – namely evangelical consumerism – may play a larger role in deconstructing Asian American identity among Asian American evangelicalism than theology alone. Finally, evangelicalism is undergoing a rapid racial transformation as evident by their participation in the Evangelical Roundtable on Immigration Reform.

A. Iconoclasm

First, let me begin with “iconoclasm,” a key concept that helps explain evangelical antipathy towards race and ethnicity. Iconoclasm is an impulse to topple cultural images (idols) for the sake of pure religious devotion. In order to worship God alone, all human activities, including culture, intellectual endeavors, and politics are relativized or devalued. Iconoclasm is particularly useful for opposing perceived oppressive power, but the flip side is its desire to destroy human cultural endeavor and breed anti-intellectualism and dogmatism. The origins of political revolution can be traced to Protestant iconoclasm, as can the so-called “prophetic” tradition of speaking “truth to power.” Thus it is important to note that both evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism have inherited an iconoclastic vision.

In this sense, mainline Protestant Asian American activism of the 1970s draws its inspiration more from this “prophetic/iconoclastic” tradition than Marx. The Christian Right does the same thing by calling America away from its idols. Though this tradition is not always front and center within Protestant and evangelical churches, it has a strong appeal and is mobilized for public engagement.

Evangelicals appeal to iconoclasm (anti-idolatry) in its critique of culture. When Asian American evangelicals assert that “I’m a Christian first, and an Asian American second” or “my ethnic identity has nothing to do with the gospel,” they are surfacing iconoclasm. And even though many Asian American evangelicals are highly educated, they tend to reject any critical reading of the bible and their inherited theology because such readings are considered idolatrous or worldly.

Even among evangelicals who are pushing for multi-ethnic ministries, iconoclasm tends to devalue ethnicity and, ironically, reproduce White dominance. In the Bay Area, where the population of White evangelicalism is experiencing some decline, conscious efforts are being made to recruit Asians (and to a lesser extent, Latinos) into predominantly White evangelical congregations. Yet the top leaders in these churches remain White male pastors, for most part. Theological institutions like Western and Fuller Seminary’s Northern California regional campuses have a significant Asian student population, but their faculty and administrative leaders are predominantly White men. (The only possible exception may be in evangelical campus ministries at local colleges like U.C. Berkeley where the leadership is much more balanced racially or have become Asian dominant.)

Let’s call this phenomenon a “color-blind multi-ethnicity.” For the most part, multi-ethnicity does not include clear affirmation of Asian American ethnic or racial identity. In other words, the American evangelical empire insists or assumes “racial non-recognition” or, at its best, promotes a “colorless” multi-ethnicity, i.e., an ahistorical and “gnostic” reading of multi-ethnicity.

But the question may then be asked: “Why did mainline Protestants embrace multiculturalism and anti-racism if they also shared an iconoclastic heritage?” The answer, in part, lies in the fact that while mainline Protestants may have devalued culture, they still sought to transform it. They therefore leapt into debates in the public square armed with intellectual weapons such as sociology, anthropology and economic analysis. Indeed, a fundamental assumption in the Social Gospel tradition is that social structures needed to be evangelized as well as individuals. Thus, mainline Protestants both supported and used social sciences to advance reform. In the mid-twentieth century, they embraced racial integration and, later (albeit less enthusiastically), multiculturalism.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, inherited a fundamentalist approach to the social sciences, the Social Gospel, and structural sin – namely, they rejected it completely. Therefore, the intellectual and cultural ethos of evangelicalism was highly resistant to “human-centered” sciences and could not engage any discussion about ethnic or racial identity. I will say more about this in my next post. But it is suffice to say, that by exorcising the demons of social science, fundamentalists have allowed an even more dangerous demon to enter its household – namely, a gnosticism characterized by intellectual absolutism and moral hierarchy.

NOTE:

The Young Adult Black Hole

Published in Inheritance Magazine #13 (Sept/Oct 2011)

Young Adults and the American Church

It is becoming a well-established fact: young adults are vanishing from the American Church. Recent surveys indicate that emergent Americans who identify themselves as Christians today have declined sharply over the past twenty years (see figures 1 and 2 below). [1] Even White evangelicals, who have usually retained a higher percentage of young adults than mainline Protestants or Catholic, are experiencing a decline of this treasured cohort. But even though many more young adults say that they are not affiliated with any religion it doesn’t mean that they are rejecting spirituality. In fact, we are witnessing the spectacular growth of emergents who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.”

Figure 1: Distance from organized religion today

Distance from Organized religion Emerging Adults Other Adults
Attend church weekly or more 15% (20 plus)30% (30 plus) 40% (older adults)
Not members of a church 35% 19% (all adults)
Belong to no religious tradition 20% 14% (all adults)
“Secular” or “somewhat secular” 23% 15% (ages 25-64)10% (over 64)

* * * * *

Figure 2: Comparing Church attendance (1970s and today)

Church attendance of Americans under 45 1970s Today
Attend weekly or more 31% 25%
Never attend 14% 20%

 

Some speculate that the conservative politics of many Christians may be turning off and tuning out the emergents, who are generally more liberal. Others think that the increase in privatization and consumerism in recent years has made the culture of young adults less interested in participating in organized communities. Rather, communities are formed to cater to the needs and desires of the young adult. Whatever the cause, the Church in America is facing one its greatest challenges.

Asian American emergents and the “renewal” of American Christianity

Though racial-ethnic Christian communities also face similar challenges, young adult engagement in church life is still relatively high when compared to the wider American Church. In fact, the significant presence of younger Asian Americans in thriving non-African American urban churches and in many campus ministries can be interpreted as a sign that God is using Asian Americans to revitalize (White) American Christianity. Asian American presence in previously White ministries legitimizes a multi-ethnic vision as do Asian American ministries that reject being identified as Asian American.

But these developments can also be a sign that Asian American churches have no future. The “Silent Exodus” will continue as generations of young adults who remain Christians leave their immigrant churches for White or multi-ethnic churches. From the perspective of immigrant Asian churches (who should also be considered Americans), the wider American church can be viewed as a Black Hole, a parasite, or a vampire that sucks the young life out their congregation’s families.

I have very little sympathy for immigrant churches that drive their young adults out because of insensitive leadership, authoritarian parenting, or uncaring coworkers. These churches don’t deserve their children.

But for the churches that have made a concerted effort to build intergenerational and multicultural faith communities (by the way, immigrant churches may be more multicultural than most multiethnic churches because they have to navigate language diversity), the revitalization of American Christianity seems to come at a great cost to them. The way American Christians treat the immigrant (and refugee) church is a test of our capacity to love the foreigner among us. Thus, the struggles and concerns of immigrant churches should matter to all Christians.

Furthermore, the fate of those who embark on the “Silent Exodus” should also matter. Do Asian American Christians in non-Asian ministries have any role other than increasing multi-ethnicity? Are their unique needs cared for? Are their contributions and gifts valued?

The bottom line: Can the American church truly be renewed if immigrant churches are dismissed and “exodused” Asian Americans are only valued as window dressing?

Raising these questions begs a deeper question: Why do Asian American Christian young adults leave immigrant or pan-Asian churches? I’d like to suggest a few reasons. Since I believe that immigrant and pan-Asian churches are to be valued as important members of the American Church, their desire to retain young adults must be taken seriously. So I’ll close with a few recommendations for these ministries.

The “Silent Exodus” or the “Babylonian Captivity”?

The usual reasons given for young adult flight from racial-ethnic churches center on four narratives. First, the culture of immigrant churches is incompatible with the Americanized young adult. It is too “Asian,” too foreign. Second, assimilation and integration into American culture is desirable, more compatible, and inevitable. Third, many Christians believe that multiethnic congregations are more biblical, therefore, morally superior to racialized churches. Hence, there is, among many evangelicals today, a race to become multi-ethnic – often at the expense of immigrant and pan-Asian churches. Fourth, underlying most evangelical conviction is that our earthly identities ultimately do not matter. Our Christian identity is the most important. Even in many multi-ethnic evangelical churches, the goal is to shed, not affirm, our earthly identities.

Together, these narratives create what I call the “evangelical deconstruction of Asian America.” I’m not saying that evangelicalism intentionally seeks to destroy Asian Americans. But Asians and Asian Americans who have their faith shaped by evangelicalism usually think that being Asian American is irrelevant. So this is how the evangelical sub-culture “deconstructs” Asian America (and other earthly identities).

Now perhaps Asian America should be deconstructed. Perhaps there should be no “ethnic” churches. Perhaps all Asian Americans should join the “silent exodus.” But these narratives sound suspiciously like “cultural captivity” to the “American dream” rather than entry into the Promised Land. Indeed, the American dream is the secular version of these four narratives. Immigrants are too foreign to matter. Their children can integrate and succeed. Together they create a multi-ethnic America where ethnic identities are less important than American identity.

Given these narratives, is it any wonder that Asian Americans prefer to leave their ethnic ghettos behind? Leaving the ethnic immigrant or pan-Asian church is equivalent to moving up in the world.

I won’t suggest very loudly that Jesus’ incarnation moves in the opposite direction. Nor do I blame Asian American young adults for wanting to pursue the American-Evangelical dream. But I do believe that these narratives powerfully shape all Americans. They create social scripts that ensure that the American norm is colored White despite the reality that there will no longer be a racial majority in the United States by 2040. It’s easier to conform to these social scripts than to change them or write new ones. That is why the “silent Exodus” will continue in the foreseeable future.

Of course, negative experiences in immigrant or pan-Asian churches will exacerbate the “silent Exodus,” but even healthy churches won’t stem the flow. Insofar as evangelicalism is captive to the American Dream, insofar as Asian Americans are captive to the evangelical deconstruction of Asian America, there is no future for Asian American Christianity. Immigrant and pan-Asian churches will never be able to develop sustainable young adult ministries. Indeed, unless we prayerfully rely on the creative work of the Holy Spirit, these social scripts are much too pervasive and powerful for us to change.

Here is an example of its power. Imagine what it will be like to dine at Christ’s great banquet when his kingdom finally reigns. Who will be seated at that banquet? Will it not be a great cloud of witnesses from every nation and every race? Who would you want to sit next to (someone else will be seated at Jesus’ side, so you probably can’t sit next to him right away)? Augustine? Luther? Calvin? Wesley? Billy Graham? All the male heroes of Western Christianity? Would you want to meet the Asian and Asian American heroes? Would you know who they are? If not, why? Isn’t this because of the Christian social script that we’ve inherited? We’re conditioned to think that only certain people are representative of Christianity – and that doesn’t usually include Asian Americans.

Creating counter narratives

But I believe that God is alive. Surprising things can and will happen. We can counter these narratives by creating alternative or counter narratives. These new narratives can capture the attention of Asian American young adults and, possibly, move their hearts towards embracing immigrant and pan-Asian Christian faith communities. I suggest three ways create counter narratives:

1. Re-envision the Asian American Christian role in the new global reality: church leaders need to capture a biblical vision of God’s redemption of all nations and peoples that includes ethnic and racial minorities. Asian Americans should not be fully identified with the dominant American culture or with Asia. They are stewards of a unique set of gifts from God (Asian American cultures, ethnicities, histories, etc.) and will be asked to demonstrate how they have multiplied their “talents.”

2. Retrieve and retell Asian American Christian stories: churches and wealthier Christians could fund research in the study of Asian American Christianity. Insist that seminaries and universities hire specialists in the area. Create scholarships that encourage such research. By retrieving stories from the past and present, a treasure trove of resources will be available to help churches tell Asian American stories. Don’t let Asian American Christian young adults grow up with no knowledge of their unique story and gifts for the wider church and the world.

3. Redeem representation: Embrace the reality that immigrant and pan-Asian churches need to encourage greater Asian American representation in the mainstream American church. Don’t simply consume what is offered by the mainstream – rather insist that Asian American voices be heard in major conferences and events. This also means promoting and advocating for Asian American speakers and leaders who understand and embrace immigrant and pan-Asian ministries. The other meaning of representation is the creation of new ways of being Asian American and Christian in our worship, literature, and arts. Churches and wealthier Christians can fund artists to articulate traditional and contemporary expressions and forms. It is not enough to protest the way mainstream culture defines and stereotypes Asian Americans. Asian Americans must create their own representations.

Multi-ethnic churches can also participate in this creative activity, but immigrant and pan-Asian churches are more deeply rooted in the Asian American experience so have a greater advantage.

In the end, the only way to stem the deconstruction of Asian America is to re-construct Asian American Christianity again and again – in new forms and expressions. Like other emergents, Asian American Christian young adults are attracted to opportunities to create. So, let us assume that immigrant and pan-Asian churches have created healthy intergenerational cultures and are responsive to the “Five Cries of Asian American Christian Young Adults.” These churches can then become “culture making” laboratories and carve out space for creating counter narratives. There may yet be hope for Asian American Young Adults!

REFERENCES

  • 60 Minutes. (2008, May). “The millennials are coming!” www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=3486473n
  • Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Brooks, David. (2001). “The Organization Kid.” Atlantic Monthly. www.theatlantic.com/doc/200104/brooks
  • Changing Sea: The changing spirituality of emerging adult project. http://www.changingsea.org/
  • Cooper, Marianne. (2008). The inequality of security: Winners and losers in the risk society. Human Relations, 61 (9): 1229–1258.
  • Crouch, Andy (2008). Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
  • Edgell, Penny (2005). Religion and family in a changing society: The transformation of linked institutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Park, Lisa Sun-Hee (2005). Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs Stanford University Press.
  • PewResearchCenter (Feb. 2010). “Religion among the Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, But Fairly Traditional in Other Ways.”  http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=510
  • Smith, Christian, with Patricia Snell (2009). Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson, and Hilary Davidson. (2011) Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Timothy Tseng (2011). “Five Cries of Asian American Young Adults” contact author or view at https://timtseng.net/2011/03/07/five-cries-of-asian-american-christian-young-adults-resource/.
  • Robert Wuthnow (2007). After the baby boomers: How Twenty- and Thirtysomethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[1] Penny Edgell, Religion and Family in a Changing Society: The Transformation of Linked Institutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

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